Miami & Havana & Hip-Hop

Bring together musicians from both sides of the Florida Straits, let them mix it up, and watch what happens

Gonzalez has found another challenge in watching MTV, which he sometimes sees via satellite dish at the home of his father, a leading Cuban electrical engineer who lives with his second wife in the plush Miramar neighborhood. Such dishes are, at least in theory, illegal in Cuba. "Almost nobody has MTV," Gonzalez laments, adding that the best way to see videos is to have someone abroad tape the music channel on a VCR. "Maybe by the time we get it it's one year old, but for us it's still okay."

Looking pensive as he adjusts his baseball cap, Gonzalez goes on to say he has recently realized that perhaps even his limited exposure to American music videos has been excessive. "I used to just imitate the rappers I saw on MTV," he admits, launching into a recitation of the lyrics he wrote about the problem. The song is called "Distortionadas Personalidades" ("Distorted Personalities").

"How many times did I get up wanting to be Big Pun

Miami Light Project's Beth Boone, flanked by Yeomanson and Saenz, plans the agenda for a weekend in Havana
david navas
Miami Light Project's Beth Boone, flanked by Yeomanson and Saenz, plans the agenda for a weekend in Havana
Among Havana's hip-hop groups is the collective known as Free Hole Negro, whose members call their wide-ranging musical fusion "free hop"
david navas
Among Havana's hip-hop groups is the collective known as Free Hole Negro, whose members call their wide-ranging musical fusion "free hop"

and I looked at myself in the mirror imitating gestures that my mind photocopied from BET

I was no longer Ed-G, I was straight out of The Source and the hits of MTV

It doesn't take a lot of analysis

to know

My creativity suffered a paralysis

My personality transformed...."

Irak Saenz joins the conversation, laughing about a band in which he once played that adopted a gangsta style. "We wore stockings over our faces and carried fake weapons," he recalls, striking a shooter's pose. "Yeah, we thought that was really cool -- until the police dragged us offstage when we pulled out the guns."

Smiling broadly and shaking his head at the memory, he says Doble Filo has embarked on a new course, which includes performing with live musicians instead of rapping over American samples. Gonzalez and Saenz met the rockers of Elevense during a concert at the Anti-Imperialist Dais (a stage positioned in front of the American Interests Section that is the frequent site of government speeches and celebrations), and recruited them to be their back-up band. They began practicing together and gave a successful performance at last year's Havana Rap Festival.

The day before the jam session, Saenz and Boone take a cab to pick up Yeomanson and Figueroa at the airport. Saenz, a tall, handsome black man with a shaved head, wears a new pair of baggy jeans Boone has brought from a friend in Miami. He cuts a cool figure as he strolls to greet his foreign brothers outside the terminal, where he's quickly stopped by a cop and asked for his identification papers. The offense appears to be Walking While Black.

"Racism in Cuba is the legacy from many years ago," Saenz reasons later. "Now the law says that blacks and whites are equal. But the law doesn't change mentalities and behavior." He's with Figueroa and Yeomanson in the bar of the Hotel Riviera, the former casino built by Meyer Lansky in the late Fifties. The lobby's kitschy decor reminds Yeomanson of the Eden Roc. He orders a triple espresso, despite the waitress's warnings. (He assures her he can handle strong coffee; he's from Miami.) Saenz shows his new American friends photos of his baby son, Irak, Jr., for whom he's intent on making a better world, despite the obstacles. "The definition of revolution is change for the good of everyone," he stresses. "But sometimes it doesn't happen that way. It's a little difficult to explain, but it has to do with social problems. The [U.S.] blockade plays its part too."

At age 31 Saenz is a veteran of the rap scene who thinks of himself as a revolutionary poet. "I believe that we can reach our goals working within the system," he says. "We rappers have a role as society's teachers. We have a responsibility to society that we have to assume." Saenz has written songs about the temptations of money, and prostitution and AIDS. But he always tries to convey a positive message. "You have to be responsible," he cautions. "I can attack drugs or prostitution, and I criticize violence, but not create violence. There are a lot of rappers who don't understand that and they criticize just to criticize. The revolution is not about using a situation to your own advantage; it's about helping other people.

"I believe in the revolution, and that there can be better times coming for us Cubans and for everyone who helps us reach these goals," he adds. "We are social educators. At the same time, the government has realized we're fulfilling a role of social and cultural importance. They've acknowledged that we can make a real contribution to the revolution."

Sammy Figueroa leans out the window of a taxi on a street in Miramar and asks for directions to the Agencia Cubana de Rap (Cuban Rap Agency). Two young black men on a corner stare back blankly, looking at each other and murmuring, "Rap?" Finally a middle-age mulatto woman on a bicycle leads them to the Instituto de Musica Popular, housed in a former private home. Behind it a hand-painted sign on the door of a small concrete building identifies the Cuban Rap Agency. The structure appears to have been hastily constructed, and with bags of cement piled near the entrance, has yet to be finished. It's a fitting metaphor for a movement in transition.

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